Spiritual Formation as if the Church Mattered by James C. Wilhoit

I studied this book during my seminary year. I recall my professor’s question to introduce this class on spiritual formation: how do we grow spiritually? And of course, we all said something like “we cannot do it, only God can.” Then our professor replied: “that’s true, but what can we do on our side?” Wow… We were mesmerized… We have never thought about it before! This book has been enlightening in that way.

The pattern described in this book is:

Receiving / Remembering / Responding / Relating

Receiving: Helping believers grow in intimate, worshipful relationship/companionship with the Triune God as individuals and as the Body of Christ

Remembering: Helping believers grow through deep, relevant engagement with the Word of God as individuals and as the Body of Christ

Responding: Helping believers grow by modeling and equipping for how the Body of Christ lives in the world

Relating: Helping believers grow through mutual edification within the Body of Christ

Instead of writing a summary as I usually do, I am going to quote what I found most interesting and worthy of meditation. This book has greatly impacted the way I see sanctification and how to foster it in the church context.

Here are the book’s corollaries:

Community spiritual formation Corollary 1:
All persons are formed spiritually. It may be in either a positive or negative direction. (p.17)

Community spiritual formation Corollary 2:
Christian spiritual formation (1) is intentional, (2) is communal, (3) requires our engagement, (4) is accomplished by the Holy Spirit, (5) is for the glory of God and the service of others and (6) has is it means and end the imitation of Christ. (p.23)

Community spiritual formation Corollary 3:
The gospel is the power of God for the beginning, middle, and end of salvation. It is not merely what we need to proclaim to unbelievers; the gospel also needs to permeate our entire Christian experience. (p. 29)

Community spiritual formation Corollary 4:
Christian spiritual formation seeks to foster a joyful apprenticeship in which we learn to live out the great invitations of Jesus, especially those concerning the life of prayer and love. (p. 45)

Community spiritual formation Corollary 5:

The fertile field for formation is a community genuinely aware of the depth of their sin and the reality of their spiritual thirst. True formation requires that the community deeply understands that they cannot cure the sickness of the souls through willpower alone.

Community spiritual formation Corollary 6
Our soul-thirst is powerful, and it makes all of us idolaters. The Bible sees idolatry as a universal problem. Communities have a unique way of embodying a corporate pride that blinds us to forms of idolatry. Also, faith communities can challenge idolatrous practices like racism in ways an isolated Christian seldom will.

Community spiritual formation corollary 7
Worship filled with prayer and praise and opportunities for confession, repentance, receiving the sacraments, hearing and giving testimonies of God’s activity, and learning/challenge is the most important context of community formation.

Community spiritual formation corollary 9
Christian spiritual formation should always be more than the Teaching Ministry of the church, but never less. True formational teaching is compressive, deeply orthodox, healthy, and anointed by the Spirit of God.

Community spiritual formation corollary 10
The Christian spiritual formation forms Christians with a deep identity and engagement for the church worldwide.

Community spiritual formation corollary 11
Evangelism is an essential part of spiritual formation. Evangelism, as people are called to faith in Christ, is the initial Act of Christian formation. The act of evangelism is a powerful means of formation for the believer who reaches out in love to share the good news.

Community spiritual formation Corollary 12
Conflict has a unique way of forming us. In conflict our natural patterns of defensiveness arise, and in this vulnerable place we can experience much growth as we learn that Jesus’ teachings are so sensible.

Here are the best quotes I found the book:

“Christian spiritual formation refers to the intentional communal process of growing in our relationship with God and becoming conformed to Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit.” (p.23)

“Spiritual formation is first and foremost about the gospel” (p. 32)

“All our spiritual problems come from a failure to apply the gospel” (p. 32)

“Spiritual formation does not take place primarily in small groups and Sunday School classes instead it mostly takes place in the world lift and every day events of life.” (p. 38)

“The heart of spiritual formation is to teach and train people to follow the wisdom and instructions of Christ through the enabling power of His grace.” (p. 39)

“We need to hear ‘love The Lovable father’, ‘love the lover of our soul’, and ‘receive his embrace’, and out of that safe place, as secure spiritual children, we seek to live out these invitations – not to earn love and affection, but to grow in the likeness of one we admire and want to be like.” (p. 45)

“God is not satisfied with mere conformity. He wants us to love him with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength.” (p. 58)

“We are born homesick longing for a land and a way of life we have never directly experienced, that which we know is somewhere, or at least ought to exist.” (p. 64)

“We must constantly reminder ourselves that obedience to God’s plan may cost us convenience but never joy.” (p. 69)

“To be broken means we recognize we are personally powerless to manage a life in the way that will bring the kind of pleasure we most deeply long for. To be broken is recognizing that we face problems we cannot overcome by willpower alone.” (p. 69)

“Our soul-thirst is powerful, and it makes all of us idolaters […] I have come to realize that when we allow people to blame the sinning simply on ‘being weak and sinful,’ we can create spiritual victims rather than disciples. The word we need to hear is that all sin flows out of breaking the first two commandments, to have ‘no other gods’ and no ‘idol’ (Ex 20:3-5)” (p. 73)

“We can begin to get some leverage in dealing with sin when we see that we do it for ‘positive reasons.’ We sin because our longings are so strong that at the operational level […] we feel that something in addition to Jesus is necessary for our happiness and well-being. We will never find the full freedom promised in the gospel if all we want from Jesus his relief.” (p. 74)

“Christian spiritual formation is not primarily about programs or techniques, but it is first and foremost about an approach to life.” (p. 75)

“We must stop using the fact that we cannot earn grace (whether for justification or for sanctification) as an excuse for not energetically seeking to receive grace.” (p. 77 – quote from Dallas Willard)

“Grace is often limited to justification. While grace is God’s free and unmerited favor, it is also his regeneration; and strengthening power. There are over one hundred references to grace in the English New Testament, and fewer than 10 percent of these refer principally to justification. Grace has much to do with how we live. For too many people, grace is about how we are ‘saved,’ and work is about how we ‘grow.’ Yet the New Testament is clear that grace is God’s merciful and restoring power as well” (p. 79)

“Leaders in their teaching, preaching, and pastoral Ministry need to be open about the reality of struggle and our awareness of Brokenness in their own life if they want to create a climate that supports authentic recognition of our Brokenness.” (p. 88)

“Worship is not always easy: it is advanced intimacy.” (p. 98)

“Confession in the presence of a brother is the profoundest kind of humiliation. . . . Confession is discipleship. Life with Jesus Christ and his community has begun.” (p. 101 – quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer)

“We are at our best spiritually when our sin drives us to the cross, when we cling to it and nothing else.” (p. 106)

“The spiritual maturity of the teacher is not incidental to the teaching-learning process. Teachers can only effectively teach what they deeply understand and have grasped from experience.” (p. 126)

“The ongoing prayer of the teacher is for the anointing of the Holy Spirit and for his instruction in the study and preparation required for teaching scripture.” (p. 127)

“Anointed teaching is first and foremost an indwelling and empowering of the Holy Spirit. There are no formulas that can guarantee its coming or effectiveness, and yet they are patterns, practices, and dispositions that foster the presence of anointed teaching. It is our responsibility to desire it, pray for it, acknowledge our need of it, seek outcomes that require it, build a place for it, and cultivate a community that seeks its truth.” (p. 129)

“Piper is right when he says that all genuine preaching is rooted in a feeling of desperation. The preacher wakes up on the Lord’s Day morning and he can smell the smoke of Hell on one side and feel the crisp breezes of Heaven on the other. He then looks down at his beautiful notes and he says to himself, ‘who do I think I’m kidding? Is this all there is?’ ” (p. 129)

“Prayer is the secret of a holy life […] Holiness is the secret of unction” (p. 130)

“There is no room for pride or abuse in anointed teaching. Pride is the opposite of humility and seeks security in self rather than in the grace of God.” (p. 131)

“Humble people put that confidence in the holy spirit’s ability to speak, not in the ability to hear, and in Christ ability to lead, not in the ability to follow.” (p. 131)

“Training that appropriates to the gospel will require a concrete look at subtle patterns of self-reliance and defensiveness.” (p. 136)

“Following Christ requires us to cultivate a lifestyle of response. Well-formed believers do not let circumstances have the final word. They do not merely react to crises but learn to respond with a gospel-grounded response.” (p. 148)

“Service predisposes a person to learn. […] Doing becomes a trying […] Discovery of the connection of things” (p. 149)

“No damage will be done to the ministry by a proper use of this priesthood. In fact, one of the principal reasons why the ministry cannot accomplish all that it is is that it is too weak without the help of the universal priesthood.” (p. 153)

“The formational ministry of a church will never be fully effective if people come to the church simply to consume spiritual benefits in exchange for the money and loyalty. By contrast, equipping means train people ‘to do.’ In the church we must train people for responsible priestly service.” (p. 157)

“Holiness does not come simply from avoiding certain actions… True piety leads to service but false piety leads to self-protection. True piety produces depth of soul, false piety yields shallow hypocrisy.” (p. 161)

“Many churches have lost sight of the holy and the soul, and the results are tragic. This change has allowed people to replace the idea of growing in holiness (as the presence and power of God increasingly permeate our lives) with the notion of sin management […] Sin management claims that people are basically okay. They simply need to employ a variety of techniques to reduce the amount of overt sin in their lives because it tends to be personally unpleasant, harms others, stifles their growth, and hampers their witness. Such a view rejects the biblical assertion that the human heart – the core of our beings – is bent away from God and others, and it replaces that biblical insight with the notion of sin as personal impairment.” (p. 162)

“We want cheap holiness. we want holiness that relishes God’s forgiveness and grace without actually admitting that we have anything for which we need forgiveness.” (p. 162)

“We face a critical question: how do we live so that Jesus’ experience of holiness is appropriately present in our lives? The answer: there is nothing we can do to grasp the holiness seen in Jesus, but they are things we can do to you receive it.” (p. 164)

“The will is immensely important in our spiritual transformation, but we must realize that it is of very limited power, and we must use it to marshal other spiritual resources at our disposal.” (p. 164)

“The soul as ‘who we are’ but also capable of ‘being programmed’ is evident in the biblical perspectives on meditation.” (p. 165)

“The gospel calls us to see ourselves as sinners but never calls us to embrace self-hatred.” (p. 168)

“The identity of the self is not so much determined by self-reflection as by intentions and actions through which the self is related to others.” (p. 178 – quote from Ray S. Anderson)

“Spiritual formation is always an outflow of the church following Christ.” (p. 180)

“A healthy Community is a truly spiritual forming community.” (p. 193)

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